Courses On Critical Thinking

Defining Critical Thinking Courses

Defining Critical Thinking Courses

written by Chris Green


Earlier this semester on our college listserv, some of my Liberal Arts colleagues shared their frustrations about designating certain courses as “critical thinking” when almost every course contains critical thinking in some version. Such frustrations are sensible given the term’s wide and varied use. To help clarify, I would like to explain what the Critical Thinking designator means in Marshall’s General Education curriculum, but, first, here is a bit of back ground about the term.

The term “critical thinking” burst onto the educational scene in 1962 [1] and forwarded a framework to train students in rational argumentation. This move was amplified by the focus on science during the Cold War, the need for higher education to demonstrate its methods, and the influx of students from varied backgrounds.

Over the last forty years, the basic mechanisms and vocabulary of such rational argumentation have become central to higher education. At the same time, the need to demonstrate the utility of higher education has continued to rise as an even wider set of Americans gain access to it.

In response, an industry of Critical Thinking has arisen, promoting the term’s cultural capital as well as increasing its proprietary feel and ambiguity. Indeed, “critical thinking” is now so widely used that one must consider its definition on a case by case basis, but after much consideration, I find the following definition works in most cases: to purposefully hone (through application, evaluation, and adaptation) the effectiveness of a skill or practice.

Working in the framework of that history, various groups of Marshall professors—always with representatives from each college—began developing a set of practices that define what “Critical Thinking” courses will mean for our purposes, a practices that will continue to evolve through use, conversation, and revision. That work came to fruition in Fall 2010 with Faculty Senate recommendation SR-09-10-(03) 49 CFAHC whose details I explain below.

Concisely summarized, a “Critical Thinking” class is a 100 or 200 level course designed to help freshman and sophomore students learn key cognitive skills, attention to which will aid their success in all their course work. This focus on the early learning of such skills complements the requirement that all general education courses now have to be either 100 or 200 level—the goal is to have students take these classes earlier rather than later. General Education Core I courses (FYS and CT) seek to bolster students’ academic success early in their college careers (during which they will take the majority of their general education courses), thus setting them up for stronger performance in other general education classes and greater accomplishment in their majors.

Critical Thinking courses promise to show their students how the disciplinary practices being introduced in that class use at least three of the following lenses: (1) reasoning, (2) representation, (3) cultural judgment, (4) information literacy, and (5) metacognitive reflection. Critical Thinking courses also show how those practices and skills relate to a primary domain of thinking (e.g., scientific or multicultural/international thinking) and at least one other domain. By having departments and professors articulate the different domains in which a CT course operates, the goal is to help everyone see the inter-related nature of courses in different disciplines.

CT courses emphasize conscious development of a few key skills by active learning rather than the accumulation of knowledge by memorization. They do so by helping students develop those skills though varied pedagogical methods that professors specify. The courses also ask students to demonstrate those skills so that the professor can assess the student’s proficiency in higher-order cognition such as application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

While such specifics can make one feel penned, they also offer a place from which we might start gauging and adjusting the practice and effect of General Education at Marshall. By specifying courses as Critical Thinking, Marshall’s General Education Core I classes have three major goals: (1) to help students develop skills that will foster success in all classes; (2) to help students integrate learning from different disciplines; and (3) to help students identify and apply skills they have gained to changing and varied circumstances and endeavors.

These goals set the basis for continued development and adaptation of those skills throughout the whole of students’ lives in their varied professional undertakings, social and political commitments, and personal explorations. Not only will our alumni continue to be marketable during economic changes, but they will have the skills to excel as citizens as our nation and world continue to alter.

In developing Marshall’s own version of “Critical Thinking,” the hundred plus faculty who have worked on clarifying the goals and process of General Education at Marshall hope that more of our students will complete college with an even better education (which is a high goal) and that Marshall will stand out as a university even more worthy of the population we serve.


For more on General Education at Marshall, visit:

[1] “Critical Thinking.”Philosophy of Education: An Encyclopedia London: Routledge, 1996. Credo Reference. Web. 19 September 2010.

For instructors interested in developing their understanding of critical thinking and their ability to bring it into the foundation of instruction. This course is for teachers and faculty actively teaching during the semester. Academic credit is also available through Sonoma State University. 

This course  introduces a substantive conception of critical thinking and how to infuse this concept throughout your instruction. It fosters understanding of how to teach critical thinking skills to students through any subject or discipline, and at any level level of instruction. In this course, you will be introduced to the elements of reasoning, universal intellectual standards, and intellectual traits through readings, discussions, and practical application activities. You will redesign lessons and strategies using the concepts and principles of critical thinking. You will practice strategies for Socratic discussions. You will help students learn to consciously use critical thinking concepts and strategies in learning, and in their lives. You will redesign and teach lessons you develop for your own classes - and receive credit for doing so! 

                                          CT800: Critical Thinking: Tools for Taking Charge of Your Learning and Your Life

Whatever you are doing right now is determined by the way you are thinking.Whatever emotions you feel are determined by your thinking. Whatever you want - all your desires - are determined by your thinking. If your thinking is unrealistic, it will lead you to many disappointments. If your thinking is overly pessimistic, it will deny you due recognition of the many things in which you should properly rejoice. 

Since few people realize the powerful role that thinking plays in their lives, few gain significant command of it. Most people are in many ways victims of their thinking; that is, they are  hurt  rather than  helped  by it. Most people are their own worst enemies. Their thinking is a continual source of problems, preventing them from recognizing opportunities, keeping them from exerting energy where it will do the most good, poisoning relationships, and leading them down blind alleys. 

This course will introduce you to the tools the best thinkers use and will exemplify the activities and practice you can use to begin emulating them. Here are some of the qualities of the best thinkers:

This course, as a whole, will introduce you to the tools of mind that will help you reason well through the problems and issues you face - whether in the classroom, in your personal life, or in your professional life. If you take these ideas seriously, and practice using them, you can take command of the thinking that ultimately will command the quality of your life. 

As an outcome of this course, you will: 

  • Demonstrate understanding of the importance of fairminded critical thinking in the cultivation of fairminded critical societies.
  • Demonstrate understanding of the parts of thinking, or 'Elements of Thought,' and how these parts work together in reasoning. 
  • Demonstrate understanding of universal Intellectual Standards and their importance in human reasoning. 
  • Demonstrate understanding of the barriers to critical thinking development, and of the ability to intervene in thinking to improve it. 
  • Articulate and exemplify the primary concepts in critical thinking, and how they can be used as tools for understanding and improving human reasoning. 
  • Articulate understanding of the problem of media bias and propaganda as a barrier to critical thought in human societies. 
  • Demonstrate understanding of ethical reasoning, and show comprehension of the differences between ethics and other modes of thought - including religion, social ideologies, politics, and law. 
  • Demonstrate abilities in close reading and substantive writing.


CT701: How to Infuse Critical Thinking Into Instruction [Part II - Advanced Course]

This course builds upon understandings learned in CT700. Hence, CT700 is a prerequisite for this course. Our approach to critical thinking is designed to transform teaching and learning at all levels; it is based on the concepts and principles embedded in a substantive conception of critical thinking. The purpose of the course is to help instructors continue to internalize the intellectual tools they need if they are to foster intellectual skills, abilities, and characteristics in student thought.  

In this course, we emphasize the importance of fostering a substantive conception of critical thinking. Such a conception not only highlights the qualities of the educated person, but also implies the proper design of the educational process. There are essential, minimal conditions for cultivating educated minds. These entail modes of instruction that foster development of the standards, abilities, and traits of the educated person.  

As an outcome of this course, you will develop skills in:

  • Developing effective strategies for fostering fairminded critical thinking in instruction.
  • Leading more advanced Socratic dialog.
  • Deepening your understanding of the foundations of critical thinking. 
  • Understanding the relationship between critical thinking and your own instruction
  • Beginning to outline a Thinker's Guide to Critical Thinking within your field of study (showing proficiency in understanding the relationship between critical thinking and your field of study).
  • Understanding more deeply the concepts of close reading and substantive writing, in order to better foster these understandings in student thought. 
  • Placing the concept of fairminded critical thinking at the heart of teaching and learning, including an explicit emphasis on the development of Intellectual Virtues. 
  • Understanding the roles played by native human pathologies of thought in impeding intellectual development. 
  • Redesigning lessons with critical thinking at the heart of teaching and learning processes.
  • Designing instructional assessment processes that dovetail with fostering critical thinking at every moment in teaching and learning.


Frequently Asked Questions... How do the courses work?

Our online courses are conducted on the Moodle platform. Before the course begins, we email each registrant with the web address of the course and his or her login information. Everything is done on the web platform: viewing and submitting assignments, communication with the instructor and classmates, etc.

Each week, new assignments are posted for students to complete. These typically consist of reading, writing, watching video footage, and providing feedback on other participants' work from the prior week. Coursework is done on your own time (no live meetings required), but each week's assignments are due at the end of that week.

How long do the courses last?

Each course runs for 15 weeks (one semester).

How much time do the courses require each week?

The average week's assignments, if done well, will take roughly 3-4 hours for most participants.

Who teaches the courses?

Each course is taught by an instructor educated in the Paul-Elder conception of critical thinking, under the direction of the Foundation's Senior Fellows. Currently:

Is there academic credit available for the courses?

Academic credit for the courses is available through Sonoma State University:

  • 3 units Philosophy credit 


  • 4.5 CEUs of Nursing credit. 

What are the course costs, and what do they cover?

Registration feew cover costs for tuition, all course materials, and academic credit (should you wish to pursue it). The registration fee is $942 without credit; add $195 if you are taking the course for 3.0 Philosophy units, or $100 if you are taking it for 4.5 Nursing CEU's.

Will I receive a certificate of completion?

A certificate of completion can be provided upon request.

How will I receive my materials after I register for a course?

The course materials will be available online in a digital format.

What if I need to drop the course?

Please see the 'Important Dates' section at the top of this page.



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